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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Nancy Khalek

photo courtesy of ~crystalina~ via C.C. License at FlickrThe Mihna was a sort of mini-inquisition that began in 833 C.E. The Abbasid Caliph al-Ma'mun sought to impose his theological views on his subjects, particularly those views concerning the nature of the Quran. Although all sides could agree that the text of the scripture was the Word of God, they differed as to whether it was Created (i.e., it did not always co-exist with the eternal God, who is totally unified and un-partnered) or Uncreated (always existent and co-eternal with God). Al-Ma'mun's position was that only God could be eternal and that therefore the text was inviolable but could not be Uncreated. To enforce his position, al-Ma'mun persecuted his opponents, sometimes dismissing them from official posts, putting them in prison, or flogging them in public. The Mihna continued under subsequent caliphs and was ended in 861 by al-Ma'mun's nephew al-Mutawakkil.

It was generally thought that al-Ma'mun instituted the Mihna under the guidance of Mu‘tazilite advisors, though this is a simplified and polemical view. In the end, it was most likely begun as an attempt to garner and solidify caliphal power under the banner of theological opinions. After all, the Createdness of the Quran was a doctrine that was not the exclusive purview of Mu‘tazilites. Other groups also espoused this doctrine. Neither was al-Ma'mun exclusively supportive of Mu‘tazilites as such. His own beliefs are not easily ensconced in one camp or another, as regard the Quran or the issues of predestination and free will.

Ultimately, the prevailing Sunni theology was Ash‘ari theology, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Asha‘ri who died in 936 C.E. This school's views were that ultimate comprehension of God's nature and the attributes of God were beyond human understanding. They also held that while humans had free will, only God had the power to create, to discern good from evil, or to determine morality from immorality. Only God's decree on such matters was possible, and people had simply to follow His edicts.  These views were not based on an aversion to intellectual critique, but on a belief in the ultimate superiority and complete otherness of God with respect to the realm of humans, who are by nature limited and inferior to God's perfection.

In this same period, a third approach to Islamic practice was Sufism, commonly referred to as Islamic Mysticism. To be a Sufi was not to be outside of the realm of law or theology, and Sufis could follow any of the aforementioned schools of law or theology.  In addition, Sufis attempted to follow a practice that brought the soul closer to God. This was manifested in a variety of practices and paths, which developed into different Sufi orders called tariqas. Tariqas originated with a particular teacher whose discipline and method for spiritual training were passed down to his or her students. Almost every Sufi order traces its lineage to teachings that originated with Muhammad.


Study Questions:
     1.    Should the schools of law be seen as sects within Sunnism? Why or why not?
     2.    Other than law, how did Sunnis distinguish themselves?
     3.    What was the Mihna?
     4.    From whom did Sunnism’s prevailing theology emerge? What does it teach?

 

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